EAST LANSING, Mich. -- We've spent a lot of time nitpicking Ohio State this early season for what the Buckeyes are not.
They are not a dominant team. They lack weapons on offense. Their defense hadn't lived up to preseason billing in the first four games. They can be maddeningly inconsistent.
But after a 17-16 victory at No. 20 Michigan State on Saturday, it's time to recognize the 5-0 Buckeyes for what they are and what they might end up being, which is possibly the best flawed team in an enormously flawed Big Ten.
"We stuck to our M.O., which is that we play to win," Ohio State center Corey Linsley said. "We may not finish every drive, and we may not score every drive. But when it comes time to win the game, we win it."
They certainly weren't perfect against the Spartans. But they answered the bell time and again and showed they could grind out a late-November type of Big Ten game in the league debut for first-year coach Urban Meyer.
"That was two sledgehammers going at it," Meyer said.
Ohio State simply swung the bigger stick. Its defense surprisingly came into the game ranked last in the Big Ten, plagued by poor tackling and a tendency to give up the big play. The first four opponents often spread the ball out and threw quick passes to neutralize the strength of the Buckeyes' defensive front.
Saturday brought a more familiar and welcome style with Michigan State's pro set. And the Buckeyes were ready.
Le'Veon Bell ranked second in the nation in rushing yards through four games, but the 244-pounder would have needed to hurdle the entire line of scrimmage to find any running room Saturday. Bell managed just 45 yards on 17 carries. As a team, Michigan State had only 34 rushing yards. Ohio State brought a safety into the box to slow Bell and felt confident playing man coverage against the Spartans' struggling receivers.
"The defense was really aggravated and frustrated by the way we played the first four weeks, because we know we're a whole lot better than what we played," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We were trying to show everybody in the world that we are a really good defense."
And against the best defense in the league, Ohio State showed it could gain the tough yards.
With 4:10 left, the Buckeyes took over on their own 18, clinging to that one-point lead. They proceeded to run the ball for three straight first downs, including a Carlos Hyde five-yard pile-drive on third-and-4 after the Spartans ran out of timeouts. Michigan State entered Saturday with one of the top rushing defenses in the country. The Buckeyes gashed it for 204 yards on the ground.
"Against that front, when they knew it was coming ... to just take the ball and end the game like that, that tells you a lot," Meyer said. "I didn't know we could do that."
The Buckeyes' offense mostly remains all about Braxton Miller. Any thought of limiting his carries has pretty much gone out the window by now. He rushed 23 times on Saturday -- more than every other teammate combined -- and gained 136 yards. It wasn't a vintage Miller performance, as he threw an interception and fumbled twice. But he also delivered a perfect throw to Devin Smith for a 63-yard touchdown -- beating All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams -- less than two minutes after Michigan State had taken its only lead of the game in the third quarter.
Miller's improvisation skills were on full display, especially after running back Jordan Hall left the game with a first-half leg injury. At one point, the sophomore somehow avoided the grasp of Denicos Allen and William Gholston in the backfield and hit Corey Brown for a 24-yard gain. Those weren't MAC defenders Miller shook off; they're two of the very best players in the Big Ten.
But Miller paid a price for those efforts. He got pushed into a metal stand in the first quarter after being hit out of bounds and went down clutching his left knee after a big hit in the second half, among many heavy shots taken. Though Miller waved off any questions about his health after the game, teammates said their quarterback was in obvious pain in the locker room.
"I knew since last year that he was tough," Smith said. "When he gets hit, he gets right back up. The desire for him to not want to leave the game is unbelievable."
That's good, because losing Miller for any length of time would wreck Ohio State's season. But if he can stay healthy, the possibilities become very intriguing.
Linsley said the Buckeyes knew winning at Michigan State was crucial to everything, because it looked like the toughest road game of the season on paper. Ohio State could now be favored in each of its final seven contests, beginning when it hosts Nebraska next week. The only dangerous road games left are at Penn State and at Wisconsin, while Michigan has to come to the Horseshoe in the finale.
Ohio State can't go to a bowl because of a probation, but it can win the Leaders Division title. And it is shooting for a 12-0 season.
"Where we could be right now, it's just awesome," Linsley said. "It's a great feeling to know we can be so much better than this."
Are the Buckeyes perfect? Not even close. But in a highly imperfect Big Ten, they could prove extremely hard to beat.